Robert Shaw: Public discontent with rising cost of living alarming

ANY RESIDUE OF THE GRAND Coalition’s honeymoon is fading away fast. An element of goodwill and hope remain, but it is diminishing quickly as the mounting problems confronting it and the country multiply. They are compounding fast and in turn making the task of government more onerous.

It has not been helped by the fact that we now have a huge and unwieldy government. There may be validity in the argument that this was the price we had to pay for peace. But, there are many Kenyans who feel that there is an excessive, some would argue greedy, element of self-serving and reward to loyalists by the ruling political elite.

On the one hand, we are fast being engulfed by a period of rising expectations, demands and frustrations that are being fuelled by the ever-rising cost of living, and on the other, by belated and often confused action on how to tackle them.

THE UNPRECEDENTED WALK-OUT on President Kibaki on Labour Day when he said there would be no increase in the minimum wage because times were hard spoke volumes.

Here was the head of a bloated government of over 90 ministers and assistant ministers, who are all drawing fat cat salaries even by international standards, basically telling Kenyans times are tough, tighten your belts and eat less and accept a continuing decline in your standard of living.

This irony was further emphasised when the latest batch of inflation statistics showed that Kenya was now experiencing the highest inflation rate since those dark days of the Goldenberg era.

It cannot be emphasised enough that any delays, impediments or wrangling in our new top-heavy government to getting down to serious work is making the challenges more gargantuan by the day.

We have the immediate legacy of the past unrest and mayhem coupled with the damage and wounds inflicted. Persuading the internally displaced persons to go back to the homesteads from which they fled is proving a hard task, and shows clearly that suspicion, hatred and fear run deep and cannot be papered over.

Whether the root causes are historical, resource-based or fuelled by poverty and inequity makes no difference to the realities confronting us when it comes to any attempts at reconciliation and greater harmony.

The strike by prison warders and the threats of several other strikes in the public sector are arguably the start of a period of major labour and social unrest. It is logical that in the formal sector, it will start where pay and conditions are at their worst, and as we have witnessed, they can’t get much worse than the lot of a prison warders.

But the unrest is likely spread beyond the public sector into the formal and informal private sector. Whilst pay and conditions may not be as bad as in the public sector, the avalanche of increases in the price of most essential commodities is fast reducing the standards of living of the vast majority of Kenyans.

In addition, much of the private sector got severely disrupted by the post-election mayhem, and in many cases, it has yet to recover.

Its latitude to increase wages to ease the burden of rising prices is, therefore, severely limited, especially as the foreseeable economic and commercial outlook looks tight.

As we witnessed with the post-election violence, there is fertile ground for volatility and discontent in the half of the population who not only live below the poverty line, but are also being hammered by these rising prices.

THE PROSPECTS OF THIS DISCONTENT with the rising cost of food and living generally spilling over into civil defiance or riots are, therefore, high.

This is especially so if the Government delays on taking remedial action to ensure there is adequate food in the coming months.

Assurances by the Government that there are adequate stocks of maize, that these reserve stocks will be increased, and that two million bags will be shortly imported may show that the Government is waking up to the gravity of the problem.

But if the stocks on the farms and in the stores are not anything like the Government assumes, if NCPB’s reserve stock is fast running down, if only half of the Northern Rift grain basket is planted, then the measures announced by the Government so far will not go far in addressing Kenya’s looming food crunch.

Mr Shaw is a Nairobi businessman.

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